Culture / Sporting Life

From $1100 a Year to 700 Wins — How UH Coach Kelvin Sampson and His Wife Karen Always Make Their Incredible Journey All About the Players

From Montana Tech to the Ultimate Houston Program Resurrection, From Icicles In Their Daughter's Crib and 18 Straight Losses to Creating College Basketball's New Power Program

BY // 11.08.22

Karen Sampson remembers when she and her then-new husband Kelvin Sampson made the $1100 decision that somehow led to 700 wins. That is how much Montana Tech offered Kelvin Sampson in salary to uproot his life and become an assistant coach in 1980.

“We had options,” Karen Sampson tells PaperCity. “And we chose that option. To go for 1100 dollars a year. He sometimes gets that amount wrong. I remember. Eleven hundred dollars for the year — and no benefits. We figured we’d do anything. I had to get a job. My dad kept saying, ‘You’ve got to get benefits. You’ve got to get health insurance.’ ”

Karen Sampson, a teacher with a degree, found work as a Native American education aide. “It was like a tutor,” she says. “I took an aide’s job because it was all I could get at the time. And they were laying off teachers with 10 years experience.” The Sampsons — Kelvin and Karen, the original team from the beginning — also managed The Green Apartments in Butte, Montana where they lived, getting $40 to clean apartments, a vital side hustle for the young couple.

Karen Sampson still has a scar on her arm from an injury she got while cleaning ovens in one of those apartments. That’s where it all started, this incredible journey that leads to Kelvin Dale Sampson winning his 700th game on a Monday night at the University of Houston’s buzzing on-campus Fertitta Center. A night that puts several tears in Kelvin Sampson’s eyes by the end of a 700 win tribute video that includes little testimonials from more than two dozen of this 67-year-old basketball lifer’s former players.

A video secretly arranged by Sampson’s daughter Lauren Sampson, this powerhouse Houston program’s do everything director of basketball operations. Lauren worked on getting all the clips from former players from every one of her dad’s coaching stops for more than a month and a half, while putting together the program’s wildly successful Tipoff Dinner at the same time.

“He’d be in practice and I’d go and get his phone and start texting (former players),” Lauren Sampson tells PaperCity.

Kelvin Sampson clearly does not know the video is coming. In fact, UH’s program savior almost walks off the floor after getting the commemorative 700 win game ball (and a hug from Karen) after the No. 3 nationally ranked Cougars’ 83-36 dismantling of Northern Colorado in the season opener. Kellen Sampson, Kelvin’s son and lead assistant, grabs him around the shoulder and stops him, pointing up at the big video board before he can get away though.

The University of Houston basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, faced the Northern Colorado Golden Bears in their 2022-2023 season opening game at the Fertitta Center
Kelvin Sampson goes into history and the 700 club with Kellen Sampson right there. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Kellen Sampson knows what’s coming. In fact, Kellen’s behind the end of the video that ensures that tear won’t just stay in the corner of his dad’s eye. The final congratulations from Kelvin and Karen Sampson’s grandkids — 5-year-old Maisy and 2-year-old Kylen. Maisy does the talking for her little brother too.

“That was Kellen’s idea,” Lauren Sampson says. “And I went over one morning — and there were some bribes and multiple outtakes — but we knew that was going to get him.”

How could it not? Kelvin Sampson’s built this Houston program into one of the truly elite college basketball programs in all of America against all odds in many ways through family as much as anything. And family means more than Karen, Lauren and Kellen when it comes to the Sampsons. It’s about more than even all those players featured in the video from Montana Tech’s Joe McClafferty to Oklahoma’s (and now UH assistant) Hollis Price to recent Coog and current New York Knick Quentin Grimes.  More than even the hundreds and hundreds of players those guys represent.

It’s about the parents of the Montana Tech players that Karen Sampson still sends Christmas cards too. Their sons haven’t played for Kelvin Sampson for more than 40 years in some cases. But they’re still part of the family.

Fabian White Jr. being part of the 700 win tribute video isn’t a surprise. But the fact that White’s parents are actually at this game, sitting in the stands, even with their son having graduated and moved on in basketball, may be. But Fabian White Sr. and Aundrea White couldn’t imagine not being here at the Fertitta Center for No. 700. They’ll probably be here for No. 702, and No. 715, too.

The Whites are still UH season ticket holders. They went to the tipoff diner last week too.

“That tells you everything,” UH athletic director Chris Pezman says. “That’s how big of a fan they are of Kelvin Sampson and the program.”

Kelvin Sampson and the Power of Always Reaching Out

Kelvin Sampson is a connector — and this 700 win milestone brings so many dots, points on the map, universities and people together. There are 33 college basketball coaches in history who won 700 games before Kelvin Sampson. But it’s doubtful that many of them brought quite this many people along and made them feel like a real part of the ride as Sampson has.

“That’s what got me,” Kelvin Sampson says of watching all those former players on the secretly-arranged video. “Which tells you that it’s not my 700 wins. It’s our 700 wins.

“It’s so good to see Joe McClafferty who was one of my first recruits way back in 1981. Forty two years ago. I’m looking at him up there (on the arena video board) and I still remember going to Butte Central High School to see Joe. So proud of him and his family. He’s got a daughter who’s an MD, a doctor. He’s got another daughter that’s an attorney. He’s got a son that works in finance. He and his wife Therese are just awesome people. . .”

Yes, Kelvin Sampson just listed off the occupations of a former player of more than 40 years ago’s kids. And he’s just getting started with naming as many players as he can on his 700 win night. D.J. White of Indiana. Nate Hinton, the leader of that 2020 team that never got to really see what it could do with COVID cancelling the NCAA Tournament that March. Wes VanBeck, a walk-on on those early Sampson UH teams who played in Hofheinz Pavilion at its worst before getting to be part of that breakout first NCAA Tournament appearance as a scholarship player.

They all get a Kelvin Sampson mention as he turns his 700 win night into everyone’s 700 win night. Many more do too.

“Those are my dudes,” Sampson says. “Those are my guys. Their handprint and everything they’ve accomplished is on this ball.”

This is how you make 700 wins even bigger than 700 wins. This is what Kelvin Sampson does. It’s as much a part of his program building magic as in-your-face defense and relentless rebounding.

“He’s a connector,” Pezman tells PaperCity. “He does an incredible job of doing that. We’d like to get that in every one of our programs. He has a real special way of doing it. And it starts with. . .

“Think about Karen cooking cookies when they do film sessions the night before the games. All those things add up.”

The University of Houston basketball team, led by head coach Kelvin Sampson, faced the Northern Colorado Golden Bears in their 2022-2023 season opening game at the Fertitta Center
University of Houston point guard Jamal Shead was pumped up to be part of Kelvin Sampson’s 700 win night. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Many of these things involve Karen Sampson, Kelvin Sampson’s forever teammate. This current UH team may be something of a national darling, with the Top 3 ranking, preseason All-American guard (the NBA Draft turning down Marcus Sasser) and super freshmen class led by Jarace Walker. These Coogs are everyone’s Final Four pick. And they play like it in this season opener. Sasser scores 21 points on 50 percent shooting. Lifeline point guard Jamal Shead racks up nine assists (against only one turnover) and a game-high plus 37 rating. Tramon Mark returns from his own season-ending injury of last season to show how different his 3-point shot is with a healthy shoulder and adds three of UH’s 14 steals. And Jarace Walker’s impact jumps out and becomes impossible to miss even on a night when he shoots 3 for 14. The freshman grabs 12 rebounds — including six offensive rebounds, four more than any other Coog — in 28 revelatory minutes.

Yes, these Cougars are good. Even if the internal expectations haven’t really changed. Kelvin Sampson’s UH teams have been talking about going to the Final Four and winning a national championship openly amongst themselves since the 2019 season. They made a Final Four in 2021 and almost did it again last season despite an almost unfathomable rash of injuries, losing a close game to Villanova in the Elite Eight.

In many ways, it’s business as usual for the program that’s won more games than Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and every other longtime blue blood program in America since 2017. (Only Gonzaga’s won more in that span.) The rest of the national sports world finally catching on is what’s different about this season.

But Karen Sampson remembers when no one was catching on or buying Kelvin Sampson stock. When they lost 18 straight games one season at Washington State.

“It was a lot of building.” Karen Sampson says. “I mean we lost 18 straight to end the season. The last win (of the season) was right after Christmas. And we don’t win again until the next (basketball season). Holy moly. Eighteen straight. Every way imaginable.

“At the buzzer. In overtime. We lost by 43. We lost leads late. In the last second.”

A coach’s wife never forgets. Maybe even m0re than the coach.

“We had options. And we chose that option. To go for 1100 dollars a year. He sometimes gets that amount wrong. I remember. Eleven hundred dollars for the year — and no benefits.” — Karen Sampson

Karen Sampson knows how much sacrifice, how much hard work, how much sometimes almost blind belief it took to get 700 wins. For Kelvin Sampson to become one of the very best basketball coaches in the world, someone who anyone with a functioning basketball mind knows should be in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

The 700 Level Moment — and That UH Resurrection Mountain

The players on this current 2022-23 Houston basketball team are clearly thrilled to be part of their coach’s 700 win moment. It’s one of the most endearing things about this special night at the Fertitta Center, which caps off a special day in Houston that sees the Astros parade through downtown as world champions.

“That’s something a lot of us — we’ll always remember that,” Marcus Sasser says. “Being part of his 700th win. I say it’s a blessing really.”

“First of all, it’s a lot of wins,” Jamal Shead says. “It’s an awesome moment we got to be part of for him.”

Shead can’t stop smiling as he grabs Sampson by the shoulder in the postgame celebration. Rebounding maniac J’Wan Roberts can’t stop giggling with the joy.

“That’s a big time honor for Coach Samps,” Tramon Mark tells PaperCity. “I’m very proud of him. He deserves it. He deserves it very well. All the things he’s done for this team, his past teams. I’m not even surprised. I would have thought he had even more wins.”

There’s no way for Sasser, Shead or Mark to know everything it took to get to this 700. But Karen Sampson does. She’ll never forget that drive to Butte for that Division II assistant job, the one where they picked up wedding presents in North Carolina along the way and saw one car break down in route.

“When we got to the top and we were coming down into Butte it looked like Emerald City,” Karen Sampson recalls. “. . . When we got there, it looked like the lights were twinkling. And then — and then, daylight came.”

Kelvin Sampson’s wife laughs. If you think the coach is the funny one in the family, you haven’t heard this coach’s wife enough. For the reality of daylight in Butte soon meant understanding that those Michigan State winters they left behind were nothing but a pushover.

“It was minus 43,” Karen Sampson says. “I looked it up. . . My mother called me every day. To see if we were alive. . .  Where the apartments where we were, The Green Apartments, Lauren’s nursery had ice this big in it, on the edges.”

Karen Sampson holds her hands far apart to indicate the ice. That Green Apartments’ old heating system had no chance of keeping all the giant icicles outside at minus 43. But the Sampsons learned to love Butte and wrestled with leaving, only becoming convinced when then-Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote kept telling his former grad assistant that if his goal was end up in Division I coach he needed to take any Division I job.

All these years later, Kelvin Sampson is celebrating that 700th win in Houston with a team that’s ranked third in the nation. In some ways, 200 wins at UH already may mean almost as much as that 700 overall.

“I think our journey, we all knew how hard this one was,” Lauren Sampson says in the hallway of a buzzing arena that used to be dead. “This stop. And so there are moments where you sit back and you enjoy it.

“I sat back tonight and thought season opener, Astros parade, Monday. That’s a lot of reasons where in the past we’d be like, ‘Well, there’s 20 people here.’ But it’s filled. That’s an example of the journey.”

“Those are my dudes. Those are my guys. Their handprint and everything they’ve accomplished is on this ball.” — UH coach Kelvin Sampson on his former players.

The coach’s wife tells me that she did not hear her man mention the 700 win milestone once in the weeks leading up to the game. And on his night, what’s supposed to be his night, Kelvin Sampson somehow works reminding reporters to call their moms or dads if they’re still around int0 his postgame press conference. And once that’s done, Sampson is in the hallway joking around with Tramon Mark about who that guy wearing No. 12 playing all-out defense could have been.

Mark, who wears No. 12, beams. This is the 700 Win Man at work. It’s always about his players. His guys. His dudes.